July 3, 2013 -- If you saw a computer game version of yourself regularly exercising and forgoing snack foods, would you follow its lead? A new paper published in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Control suggests it might work.
According to the study, women who watched an avatar likeness of themselves performing healthy activities also lose weight.
Melissa Napolitano, the lead author of the study, said she used her background in clinical psychology in order to get overweight and obese women to start treating their bodies better.
"One of the things I noticed is that some women are unsure if they're ready to make changes to their lifestyle," Napolitano, an associate professor at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told ABC News. "But avatars are one of the most powerful tools in terms of making behavioral changes."
At first, Napolitano wasn't even sure whether women would be receptive to the avatars, because 98 percent of the women she initially surveyed had never interacted with a video game or any form of virtual reality. However, as it turned out, that fear was unfounded.
"Almost 90 percent of them said that they would be excited to use the avatar," she said.
The next phase of the study recruited eight women to pick an avatar. They didn't have much say in what their avatars looked like, though they were able to customize their skin tone and body shape.
Afterwards, Napolitano gave them a 15-minute DVD to take home that portrayed their avatars practicing a variety of healthy habits, like shopping for low calorie foods or better portioning their meals.
By the end of the four-week study, the eight women lost 3.5 pounds on average. More importantly, Napolitano said, all of the women who watched their avatars in action would recommend it to others as a weight loss tool.
She also noted that though the number of people who participated in the study is small, the technology could easily be scaled up and could reach hundreds or even thousands of women at once.
Though the study was conducted with women in mind, Napolitano sees no reason why it shouldn't work with men as well. She said that the only reason that her group started with women were because of the limited selection of avatars.
Despite the promising results, Napolitano said she sees this research more as a pilot program that still needs to be fine tuned. She plans to add more customization options so that women more closely identify with the avatars they created.
"[The program] makes them say, 'That's a weight loss skill that I can do on my own,' and increases their own self confidence," she said.